All posts by Chelsea Schmitt

Q&A: If Cowardice is the Absence of Courage, Clichés are the Absence of Detail

Anonymous said to howtofightwrite:

Do you have any advice on writing a “cowardly” character without making them “cliché”? Usually people write “brave” characters as not being afraid of rushing headfirst into combat, or the “cowardly” character is also shy but I find that boring. 

Well, you know there is the saying, “only fools rush in.”

The issue with the labels of brave versus cowardly is not that the issue is complex, but rather that people tend to apply them to actions instead of motivation. The same action can be brave or cowardly or neither, depending on who is doing it and why. 

I’ll break it down for you:

Coward – Cowards always take the easy way out.

“Cowardice is a trait wherein excessive fear prevents an individual from taking a risk or facing danger. It is the opposite of courage. As a label, “cowardice” indicates a failure of character in the face of a challenge. “ – Wikipedia

Whether you will be a coward or not depends on the challenge you’re facing, those challenges can be physical (commonly understood as part of physical conflict and violence), but they’re also emotional, social, or facing what causes you fear or anxiety. A coward is defined by specifics, not abstracts.

Example: a great hero who goes on a quest to save the world in order to escape the emotional difficulties of dealing with their significant other or loved ones is, ironically, a coward.

Example: an anti-social individual who is circumspect and distant from strangers, but not afraid of social interaction isn’t a coward.

Example: an individual who rushes in because being called a coward negatively affects their self-image is… a coward.

There are plenty of times when people are called cowards when they aren’t, usually this has to do with confusion over action versus motivation and cultural bullshit about courage.

Courage – Merriam Webster’s definition of courage is “mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty.”

I think the key word for you to understand is “difficulty.” Courage is not about being fearless, it’s about facing what you’re afraid of. In a limited scope, only the individual can define what actions are courageous for themselves. No one else can tell you what to be afraid of, or define what’s difficult for you. If you are someone for whom the words and labels applied to you by others define who you are, then rejecting those cultural standards may be courageous.

You want to be careful about saying bravery is the absence of fear, or logic. Stupidity isn’t courage. Someone who lashes out because they’re afraid isn’t more brave than the person who runs. Running at your problem can be the same as running away. When you don’t consider the problem, you’re still practicing avoidance. Building up walls, filling your day up with pointless tasks, putting off dealing with what’s bothering you, those are all symptoms.

A character who isn’t bothered by or afraid of physical conflict isn’t brave or courageous. There are plenty of characters, like people, who will use physical conflict or action to escape from what makes them emotionally uncomfortable.

If you’re retreating into what makes you comfortable, you’re not being brave. If you’re taking stupid risks trying to prove you’re not scared of something, you’re probably afraid of it. 

Example: adrenaline junkies aren’t brave, they’re looking for a high.

If your character is talking back to a villain who would kill anyone else who wasn’t the protagonist for doing the same thing, they aren’t being brave… they’re engaging in author sanctioned stupidity. (I mean it too, there are plenty of authors who can’t handle their protagonist being powerless and use witty comebacks as a means of restoring control. Undercutting their villain, and the scene’s tension, in the process.)

How do you write it?

This part isn’t easy.

Writing characters who are brave versus characters who are cowards requires sitting down and figuring out what your characters are afraid of. You have to figure out what situations and scenarios are physically, emotionally, or morally challenging for them. That’s complicated, usually requiring a fair amount of self-reflection. However, it’s the only way to escape clichés.

No one likes dealing with uncomfortable situations or making challenging choices. If you use your writing as an outlet for your personal fantasies then writing characters who are courageous can be difficult because what is uncomfortable disrupts that fantasy. The power fantasy, for example, is tenuous and reliant on a narrative where things aren’t specific even if they’re difficult emotionally. Fears begin to define a character and the more a character becomes an individual, the more difficult it is for the reader to insert themselves into the story.

Depending on what you’re reading, many authors will steer toward the generic rather than specific or gloss over the fears entirely. We can make as many jokes as we like about “Pants” the protagonist, but the vague outline and generics serve a specific narrative purpose. 

If you’re using a novel where the protagonist is Pants for reference, then you might run into difficulties when writing. The narrative outline will steer you into generics, specifically for your protagonists. Pants can’t really be brave because Pants isn’t a person, they’re a simulacrum cobbled together from stereotypes. A shadowy outline of a person designed for self-insertion. While this is an intentional choice on the part of the author, it won’t help you when you’re writing.

Your characters are built from you, so the best point of reference is always going to be yourself. Which means self-reflection, acknowledging situations social or otherwise which make you or made you uncomfortable.

It is easier, for example, to have a conversation about your emotions and struggles with a complete stranger than someone who knows you. The reason is that the stranger doesn’t know you, can’t affect you, and you don’t need to see them every day so the conversation can’t have any lasting impact on your life. If you’re afraid of change, of the consequences of voicing your opinion, of those you care about disregarding what you have to say, then this can be a safe release which ultimately changes nothing. Is this courage? Not really, no.

Delving into our own weaknesses isn’t easy, it isn’t comfortable, and it isn’t always fun. Poking at the wounds inside your mind or figuring out what you’ve been avoiding, what makes you feel insecure or unsure. Then taking those feelings to your writing, to the scenarios you’re structuring. You ask yourself questions about what your characters are feeling. If it’s hard, then why is it hard? If they’re running away, why are they running away? If they’re charging forward, why are they charging forward? What motivates their actions?

Specificity combats clichés. Clichés are by their nature generic, a character who provides specific detail to make the cliché about their personal experiences isn’t.

-Michi

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Q&A: Bringing Fear to Your Fight Scenes

Anonymous said to howtofightwrite: How can I bring emotions like fear and anger into a fight scene without making it too long? I’m writing a blacksmith who’s never fought before, donning a suit of crude steel plate armor before being attacked by an experienced killer with a spear. The armor is supposed to be the only thing that saves him while the other guy smacks him around, and I want to capture how it would feel to be in that position… without taking up half a page to do it. Any advice?

Right now, you’re trying too hard to front end everything you want into one scene. In a fight scene, especially against an experienced opponent, all your character will have time to do is react and they won’t be able to react much because it will be over within the first few paragraphs.

Your protagonist may have time to get scared, but he won’t have time to get angry. He may not ever have time to get past shock and surprise before it’s over.

Unlike what you might have come to expect from video games or tabletop RPGs, a set of ill-fitting armor won’t actually protect him much. In fact, he may not even be able to put on all the pieces before he gets attacked.

Put Your Tension in the Lead Up:

It’s important to remember that fight sequences are payoffs, they’re supported by the other scenes in your novel. If you want to make it clear to your readers that your character is afraid and put time into showing that fear, you put those moments in the scene preceding the fight. They’ll have time to reflect, panic, slip up, stumble, as they try to decide what they’re going to do.

In this case, the best place to put the tension, anxiety, and anticipation comes from the action of this character putting on armor that doesn’t fit. In his case, plate armor was probably the worst choice because each set of plate is designed for a specific individual. Unlike what you’ll find in video games, plate is form-fitting and only works for the individual whose body it was created for. Putting on plate is an intensive process, it takes more than thirty minutes (even with armor designed for him) so this would be the perfect time to show exactly how ill-prepared this apprentice is.

Plate Mail Isn’t Grab and Go:

If this blacksmith’s apprentice doesn’t work for an armorer he may not even know how to put that plate armor on, and, even if he does, he may never put armor on himself without someone else there to help him. You can build a lot of desperation out of the mere act of his struggle to put the armor on. Armor is actually pretty complicated, properly putting armor on when you’re alone is a pain in the butt, and it takes a fair amount of time even when you know how. It would take more than thirty minutes, and, given it’s full plate, he may not be able to put all the pieces on without someone else there to help him. So, he’s not going into this battle in full plate, he’s got piecemeal plate.

You’ve probably never had the experience of wearing a garment that’s tailored specifically for you, to your measurements, to your body, made for you and no one else. Medieval armor, however crude, was not one size fits all. Putting on someone else’s armor could be debilitating all by itself, even if you were roughly the same size. This is why people didn’t just grab a fallen knight’s armor off the battlefield and wear it themselves. They couldn’t, it wouldn’t work right because it wasn’t their armor.

Plate armor is not like in video games, you can’t just slot a piece you find and go to town. The armor has to contour properly to the body in order to absorb the impact, otherwise it won’t work right.

You’re apprentice isn’t putting on the armor because its the smart choice. He’s putting it on because he’s desperate. He knows that (or he’s an idiot), and you need to let the audience know that too.

Your apprentice will be struggling with the ties, having inappropriate undergarments, feeling the metal slipping on his body, exposing vulnerable and vital parts of himself. The gauntlets rattling because his hand is too small or squeezing because his fingers are too long, too large. It’ll rattle, flop, slide, shift, and he may not be able to secure the knots tightly enough to keep it from exposing vital points.

Survival Depends on the Enemy’s Whims:

To have your own survival be entirely dependent on the whim of someone trying to kill you is a terrifying situation to be in.

The problem you’re running into on your assumptions is three fold:

  1. You’re treating armor as a applying a flat stat bonus to the character.
  2. That the enemy attacks the armor instead of the parts of the body still readily available.
  3. You assume that the experienced killer can’t easily get past the armor (that doesn’t fit right and that the protagonist can’t fight in) to kill the protagonist.

The answer is this “experienced killer” can get past the armor by going for the parts of the body which are exposed like the joints, or the neck. Plate armor has gaps, and if the armor is not made for this character those gaps are going to be even less protected.

An experienced killer will go for those like the armpit, the knees, or (if exposed) the groin, or they’ll put him on the ground, brace the spear to put the tip directly through the breastplate, or drive the spear through the eye slit in the helmet. They won’t waste time playing pinball, and his best hope is that they’re in enough of a hurry that they won’t confirm the kill. Or, that he’s not their target, they genuinely don’t care if he’s dead, and they just want him out of the way. Dead or not, so long as he’s not moving, it doesn’t make a difference. He’s irrelevant.

His survival depends entirely on the person trying to kill him and how sloppy they decide to get. He has no control over living or dying, and the armor he’s put on? That gives him the illusion of protection, it might prolong his death, but it’s not what saves his life. The experienced killer is the one who saves him by deciding to (or not being given the chance to) be thorough.

They assume they’ve killed him. So, he lives.

Loss of Agency is Terrifying All By Itself:

There’s a mistake a lot of writers make when setting up scenarios with lopsided power dynamics where they call it a “fight scene” in an effort to inject some sort of equality into the sequence. There is no equality here. You need to call the sequence what it is. This isn’t a fight scene, this is a murder.

Your character is being victimized. They’re a victim.

Your protagonist has no control, no power, no ability to save themselves. They’re stripped of their agency and left defenseless. This is the fight scene you’ve constructed for your protagonist, which is why his survival is dictated by the whims of experienced fighter. The experienced fighter holds all the power.

One of the problems with this sort of scenario is that most writer’s don’t want their character to experience this kind of powerlessness.

However, this is helplessness is the true source of fear your character is going to be experiencing in the sequence.

Nothing. They. Can. Do. Will. Save. Their. Life.

Their life is in the hands of the person trying to kill them.

That’s terrifying.

You’re Not Giving the Experienced Killer the Respect They Deserve:

The real issue you’re having with your scene is that your treating this Experienced Killer character as a mook. A minor character who shows up to get this protagonist the experience they need then wanders off to never be seen again.

You’re not afraid of them, and, if you’re not afraid of them, why would your audience be?

It is very important to establish motivations and characters for your minor characters because their actions shape your narrative. This one character is formative for your protagonist, the memory of them is going to drive your narrative.

Who are they? How do they behave? What are their mannerisms? Why are they trying to kill this kid? Is this a job for them? Are they here specifically for him? Or is he just in their way?

If this character doesn’t unnerve you in your protagonist headspace, if your gut doesn’t twist, and your body doesn’t tense up a little in anticipation of the arriving horrors, then go back to the drawing board. Focus on crafting a character who feels threatening from start to finish.

Stop Remembering Your Protagonist is Going to Live, Start Focusing on the Fact They’re Going to Die:

Fear isn’t actually that difficult to write. You’ve experienced fear. Everyone does at some point in their life. Fight/Flight is different, but fear is common. You’ve experienced anger. The problem is you’re not properly simulating the experience when writing your scene. The solution is behaving like your protagonist can actually die. Forget that you intend for him to live. He needs to believe he will die, and this individual going to kill him.

Embrace your powerlessness. How does that make you feel?

“I’ll give you six gold pieces to toss him out that window.”

“Seven and you’ve got a deal.”

Personally, if I had to choose how to deal with killing this character, I’d go with defenestration. I’d have the experienced fighter throw or kick him out a (probably second story) window. They’d assume the fall in combination with the forty to eighty pounds of armor killed him, and go on with their day. This way, they don’t take him seriously, the “death” is humiliating, they don’t care enough to finish it, and the protagonist is, for the moment, out of reach.

This is an old sleight of hand sequence in media from novels to film, and a good one because it allows you to make the scene about something other than the killing for the character holding the power. If they look seriously at the protagonist as a threat, the protagonist will die. If they’re focused on doing their job, the protagonist dies. So, make it about something else. Entertainment is usually a good alternative. Experienced professionals don’t, usually, play with their kills. I toss this method out to bored soldiers or mercenaries looking to spice up a Tuesday pillage.

Casual cruelty, especially dismissive cruelty, is terrifying all by itself because it highlights the protagonist’s powerlessness. The antagonist’s power is amplified because they don’t bother giving the protagonist the benefit of dignity or the illusion of being a challenge. The protagonist is going to die, and the villain is going to have their fun before they roll right over them onto their next victim.

-Michi

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Q&A: Force Multipliers

lonewolfpawprints said to howtofightwrite: I’ve been told that the mere act of possessing a knife is as effective as 10 years of martial arts training. What do you think of this claim?

The claim makes sense in the statement’s original context, which was probably trying to articulate the dangers of force multipliers, the knife as an ambush weapon, or a self-defense professional discussing knives used in muggings against unarmed combatants. In every one of these examples, it’s a (admittedly bad) metaphor trying to illustrate a concept that can be difficult for individuals with limited backgrounds to understand.

What the claim isn’t is a blanket declaration of fact, because in that context it makes no sense at all. However, someone makes the statement, someone else parrots it, and we’re off to the races. Now, you’re here with a statement ridiculous on its face because it removes all the conditions and is basically saying knives are magic.

The knife is a force multiplier in hand to hand combat, making the individual who carries one far more dangerous than one without. The 10 years is trying to convey that the knife, especially as its one of the most common weapons encountered in a modern, urban environment, is a very dangerous weapon that has killed many experienced individuals.

Getting your students to grasp how dangerous (clear, and present, will kill you even in inexperienced hands) can be very difficult due to how the knife is often disregarded in popular culture or written off as a weapon for gang members or fantasy rogues.

The actual example is this: “You have two martial artists of equivalent skill who have both trained for ten years, but one of them has a knife. Add an additional ten years to the guy with the knife, and that’s what you’d be facing.”

This is not adding a literal 10 years of training, this someone trying describing the additional dangers presented by a force multiplier. What this example doesn’t mean is that a person without any training at all has ten years of martial arts training, will magically turn you into a martial arts master, or that the knife makes up for training you don’t have.

Someone utilizing the knife as an ambush weapon in a mugging can stab you multiple times to the point where you will bleed out and die on the street.

Someone with actual training in using the knife will kill you much faster than the mugger.

Someone with no martial training trying to use a knife for self-defense can brandish it, at best. If the threat of violence doesn’t work, they won’t know what else to do with it other than swing wildly. Swinging wildly will risk the blade being taken away.

The knife is not a replacement for martial training, it adds an additional force bonus to what you already possess, and makes you more dangerous in hand to hand combat; especially against an unarmed opponent.

Try to remember, for the most part, martial combat doesn’t have universal rules. There’s a lot of great advice out there, but everything is contextual. Everything is conditional, there’s always an exception, and those conditions and exceptions when utilized appropriately significantly change the field of battle.

Here are some basic examples:

Size doesn’t matter except when ground fighting.

Ground fighting, when lying on the ground, like grappling has to deal with the full weight of gravity. Here, weight, height, limb length, and leverage all play a significant role that they don’t while standing.

The gun is king except in close quarters, when you aren’t given time to draw.

There’s a double whammy for this one. If you don’t have time to draw or your opponent is past the gun, the gun is not king, which is where the eight foot or two meter rule (these are different distances) comes in. However, those rules only apply to Weaver/Teacup/most normal stances, and don’t apply to those individuals trained for close quarters shooting. (Like CAR.)

You might think some of these are obvious, but there’s often a rush to generalize information so its easier to understand. Generalizations can impede your understanding and, ultimately, take statements out of context. However, it is easier to generalize than itemize all the situations where a statement isn’t accurate.

-Michi

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Q&A: Forward Versus Reverse? Both Are Good

transquad said to howtofightwrite: what’s your verdict on forward vs. reverse grips, for combat use? which styles of knife go better with which grip? would it make a difference if you’re fighting something significantly smaller or larger than a human?

Yes.

The grips aren’t stylistic, they’re utilitarian, and all styles of knife fighting utilize both. Often, they’re interchangeable depending on position and situation. Keep in mind this post will be discussing uses with a traditional combat knife and not something highly specialized like the kerambit.

Some rules about grips:

  • Knife fighting is not really a style of its own, but supplemental to hand to hand. (The knife takes the place of the attacking hand.)
  • Grips and blade position are about application of pressure: i.e. how do you want to slash, cut, hack, or stab.
  • Your type of grip limits your range of motion.
  • Range rules.
  • Knife fighting in the real world is about stabbing your opponent as much as possible so they bleed out. This is the mugger who bull rushes and stabs you between ten to twenty times in the gut.

Forward: For most of what you want to do, forward will be your number one. The forward grip is the most common, the one you’re mostly likely to encounter, and has the widest range of striking options. It also synergizes better with most standard hand to hand techniques, taking the place of the fist or striking hand. It also has greater reach with the straight blade.

However, this is for quick and fast strikes in the hand to hand range. If you just want stick the blade in and drag? Reverse is better. If you’re in standing grappling range, don’t want to simply just stab, stab, stab the gut, and need to economize your blade size for striking room? Reverse is better.

Usually, you’re looking at the standard straight blade for the forward grip.

Reverse: Reverse is about economizing space and power. This grip is about opening up options for ambush striking but also when you’re in very close quarters and don’t have much room. You’re limited to a lot of very tight strikes and cuts. However, this grip allows you to strike with just the elbow rotation rather than needing the shoulder.

The grip halves your arm’s ability to move (because, again, the entire major rotation happens in the elbow and limits extension), thus halving your power generation. Power isn’t as necessary with knives because the blade is doing the work for you, and every cut is a victory. The reverse grip shines when you’re pushed into an extremely close quarters situations, which is the standing grappling range.

The reverse grip is benefited by a curved blade, but you can do both. Curved blades generally specialize more for hooks and control, so it’s a different kind of cutting with a different approach.

If you don’t have a lot of experience with martial arts, the concept of range and the various ranges can be something of a mystery. You always want to remember that the body’s mechanics and motion are the means of generating power, rather than being an outside aggregate based on height and weight. Weapon’s work benefits from set ranges. Both fighters will struggle to maintain their weapon’s effectiveness. In hand to hand, you’re always moving inward. Techniques rise and fall in usefulness based on how close you are to your opponent. The knife, as a supplemental weapon, follows hand to hand rules.

Consider you’re in a position where you’re so pressed up against you’re opponent, your forearm is literally braced against their chest. In this position, you’re knife in the forward grip is either neutralized or more a threat to you. Now, rotate the image into reverse grip. The knife is in their chest or the tip is pressing on it. From here, you have options.

However, if you’re starting the fight from further away and you need to move in to strike, the forward grip will benefit you because you have full extension of the arm for striking. If you’re starting from a reverse grip, you need to close that distance as quickly as possible.

The difference between the two is based on the types of techniques being used and the ranges involved. The irony is while there’s a tendency to debate which is better, the goal of having a variety of techniques is about giving yourself multiple options for different scenarios. There’s no specific martial art or technique which is the best all the time in every situation.

Keep in mind, the knife is a deadly weapon that doesn’t require much skill to use effectively. We can go back and forth in debates, but, as many self-defense experts will point out, one of the most effective knife attacks used in the real world is the bull rush with multiple stabs to the gut, or cutting someone up as much as you can as quickly as you can in a blitz ambush.

Non-Humans: Modern combat with the knife is designed for fighting humans. In hunting, the knife doesn’t see much use except for utility. Martial combat is designed around the idea that you’re going to be fighting a human, and, for the most part, one of similarly comparative size. So, it doesn’t translate well for fighting against an opponent that is significantly larger or smaller than yourself (outside the human range) because an entirely different set of considerations will apply.

When selecting weapons for your characters to use, you should always be asking: how will this benefit me?

This thought takes you beyond the stylistic, beyond the favorite weapon, and dumps you into actually considering what you’d take into battle against an enemy between nine and ten feet tall.

Would you want to go after a pixie with a knife? Probably not.

Would you want to go after a werewolf with a knife? Again, probably not.

You want an advantage. You don’t want to die. You want to give yourself the best shot at winning.

You want to train your mind to be looking for advantages, searching for whatever will give your characters an edge, because fiction is ultimately fake. The onus is on you to provide an internal reasoning beyond, “I, the author, wanted it that way.”

The knife’s role in martial combat is as a supplemental weapon in hand to hand, rather than a weapon like the staff or the sword which requires a significant adjustment to use. The knife is a tertiary weapon utilized in the hand to hand range to give you a significant advantage over an unarmed opponent.

-Michi

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Q&A: For Fiction, There’s No Superior Fighting Style

slutside-out said to howtofightwrite: Are there any fighting styles that are vastly superior to others? In other words where one person’s very skilled in one form of fighting but would just be completely outclassed by someone who’s skilled in another form. I’m writing a story and there’s a scene where one of the best hand to hand fighters in the group is just completely ruined by an assassin sent after him.

“Superior Fighting Style” questions are one of those which can easily devolve into fanwank. (See: katana fans.) Basically, contextualize this question as any of the loaded questions you would avoid asking about like “who is the show’s best character?” or saying “this couple is perfect and all other pairings are trash” when discussing your favorite television show. Expect heated debate with some (or no) validity, littered with good points and many inaccuracies, that eventually devolve into ALL CAPS yelling on some distant forum board.

There is no vastly superior martial art. The military martial combat forms are kept on the cutting edge for warfare in the modern world. They could (depending on definition) be considered “the best”. (Even so, you’ll still be getting into arguments about various Armed Services divisions about who is the most effective, like SEALS versus Army Rangers versus Force Recon versus Delta versus the Green Berets, etc. That’s before we start comparing different countries.) However, these martial arts are superior because they have been adapted to serve in the current environment and not because they are all the best all the time. There are plenty of other martial arts which will work better as a reference point for the character and their outlook. There are a lot of martial arts and martial combat forms with stellar reputations. There’s no unified consensus.

The superiority answer will change depending on who you talk to, and usually they’re overlooking some crucial detail the other martial art they’re degrading offers. You’ll get a flavor of the month answer like Krav Maga, Silat, Ninjutsu, Muay Thai, which is a disservice to the others like Hapkido, JiuJutsu, Judo, Taekwondo, Sambo, Northern Shaolin, Eskrima, Capoeira, and thousands of others. Taekwondo gets derided a lot by Mixed Martial Arts fans for its popularity, but the truth is that when it works, it really works.

Ultimately, mindset makes the warrior. The answer is never in the secret techniques but in the skill of the individual who wields them and their ability to face the unknown.

I’m pointing this out because I’ve seen a lot of writers fall into the secret or superior martial arts trap. There’s an initial urge to ask for the best fighting style for a specific body type or the best weapon for a character to use that’ll give them some sort of statistical advantage. The practical answer of whatever works best for you is a freeing one, but not usually helpful when you’re in a state of not knowing where to turn. You have to start somewhere.

So, where do you begin?

Start with this: your audience will judge your character based on their ability to act in keeping with their profession.

“There’s no different angle, no clever solution, no trickety-trick that’s going to move that rock. You’ve got to face it head on.” – Avatar: The Last Airbender

The application in the above quote is that only you as the author can prove your character’s bona fides and establish them by their actions. The martial art they’re using doesn’t matter. The martial art and knowledge of it is a reference point for you while you construct your fight sequence. As a writer, you don’t have to worry about visual accuracy. You need to provide enough direction for your audience to imagine the scenario. Understanding practical application and theory will take you far, even if you don’t have the option to take up a martial art yourself.

So, pick what you like. Go on YouTube and follow different martial arts professionals who discuss practical application, there’s a lot of good short videos from professionals in the self-defense field. Lots of martial arts specialists in various fields post videos both of techniques and discussing them in comparison to what’s shown in movies and television. The Black Belt Magazine’s YouTube Channel will introduce you to a lot of professionals in various fields from self-defense experts to martial arts masters.

What you’re doing here is performing a classic narrative beat where you establish the danger presented by a new antagonist through their sound beating of the team’s strongest member.

Here’s a quick list of things to keep in mind:

1) Strategy and Tactics: Plain Clothes Ambush

While the Assassin Archetype fits a wide array of combat backgrounds and ideologies, they are usually portrayed as being underhanded and ruthlessly efficient. The group coordinating and working together is the Assassin’s biggest threat, not the technical skills of a single group member. The best way to impact squad morale is to first remove the one who is perceived as the toughest. The strategy is sound, you take down your biggest single combat threat (especially when supported by the others) and freak the squad out. The best hand to hand fighter might be viewed as their linchpin. Group cohesion fractures, they stop working together, they start panicking, and they scatter. It’s much easier to target or fight individuals one on one, if it becomes necessary.

Remember, assassins aren’t warriors. They don’t prefer fisticuffs. They like weapons. They strive for single strikes in planned ambushes from a previously scouted area where they know their target will be.

For maximum effect, this assassin starts with a walk-up ambush and doesn’t give the “best fighter” the opportunity to even fight back.

2) The Skill Factor: A Killer’s Instinct

For the sake of narrative, you want to establish that his assassin beats the group’s best fighter because they’re better. The assassin beats the group’s best fighter because they’re more experienced, they’ve seen a wider range of fighting styles and can derive better counters as a result.

I’m not going to ask why this Assassin is fighting with fisticuffs or going in hand to hand as opposed to carrying a concealable weapon like a knife or if this best hand to hand fighter survives.

It can be a huge blow to the Assassin’s credibility in their introduction (especially a violent one) if you don’t let them kill. Killing their assigned target is their job, sure, but a dead witness is better than a live one and can muddy the waters of an investigation. Assassins are professional killers and, unlike other combat professionals, their credibility is defined by the bodies.

Film usually introduces an assassin finishing a prior job (effectively killing someone the audience doesn’t care about) to establish their skill and credibility. In your novel, you can’t rely on hearsay.

You might want to consider driving the point home by feeding one of your characters to them. (This “best fighter” character, for example.)

3) Cost & Benefit Analysis: Death is Better

In every engagement, your combat oriented characters will be running a cost versus benefit analysis both before they go in and also during the battle itself. This asks if the risk of engagement is cost-effective for their goals, and if they do engage what they need to do in order to both win and undercut any potential fallout.

Cost = the energy and resources expended to achieve victory.

Benefit = what they get from fighting with or removing this individual.

Risk = the risk of injury, and other immediate dangers the engagement presents.

Fallout = this is the negative results. Alerting law enforcement to their presence, making the achievement of their overall goal more difficult. Fallout can come from the noise of the fight, the number of witnesses, accessible cameras, having nowhere to dump the body, etc.

Death removes the possibility of witnesses, making it more difficult to identify them. Death means they won’t have to deal with the same skilled combatant again, which benefits them. If the skilled combatant is dead, they can’t provide insights into the assassin’s methodology, fighting style, or strategies; keeping any others trying to protect their target in the dark. An assassin doesn’t want their target afraid, they want them complacent. If their target is aware of a threat, they don’t want them to know they are the threat. You can’t build an effective strategy for countering the unknown.

For an assassin, if they are forced into situation where they have to fight at all, killing their opponent is the best outcome. Assassins generally view bystanders as ambulatory obstacles in the way of their target instead of as people, making it easier to kill them.

However, assassins prefer not to kill anyone but their target. That is the path of least resistance and the one which is most beneficial to their future. Their goal is to complete their mission, escape undetected, and leave no evidence that they were the ones who killed the target. They want to retain their anonymity because anonymity is necessary to do their job. Their target is their goal, any cost/benefit analysis be calculated around the death of their target, and adjust based on how their actions impact those chances.

4) The Number of Moves: 1 to 3

In the world of film fight scene choreography (and real life), you signal one fighter is better than the other through the length of the fight. For maximum impact in a complete shut out, the fight part of the scene will last about a few sentences. “Getting wrecked” translates into your group’s best fighter being taken down in one to three moves. The three is part of the opening combination, rather than retaliatory. 1) Destabilizing strike, 2) Follow-up hits somewhere more devastating/sensitive, 3) Last hit (usually with the opening strike’s hand) is the due final diligence to make sure they don’t come back/puts them out of the fight.

For killing blows, this is 1) destabilize on the exterior/hit somewhere vital, 2) finishing kill/an even more vital place, 3) making sure they’re dead/another vital place.

You can do this with a knife in simple combination:

  1. Make a forward approach with the knife hidden by the body’s profile or the arm.
  2. When in range, slash on an upward diagonal across the throat.
  3. Rotate the knife (if the knife is in a forward position, not necessary if the knife is already in an icepick grip), and come back in to puncture the carotid with blade tip.
  4. Knife through the back of the neck as you move past, severing the spinal column.
  5. They collapse, dying. On to the next.

This is a simple combination which makes use of the blade’s position in the hand (the ice pick grip). You distract them with the first injury (slash) which likely landed painful but superficial injuries, to strike the vital point (the artery) ensuring a fast bleed out, and the final blade strike through the spine paralyzes their entire body. Paralyzing them ensures they cannot staunch the blood flow to buy themselves time. They have no choice but to lie there and bleed out. This strategy also benefits the attacker because the more emotional and less experienced members of the group might break to protect their friend.

This is also just one potential option, there’s a wide array of possibilities when ambushing or striking with a variety of hand to hand techniques/weapons.

The only problem with this scenario and approach is that if the assassin’s target isn’t the squad itself but a single member or someone they’re protecting then attacking head on doesn’t really benefit them. A competent group will sacrifice one or two soldiers upfront to stop the assassin, while they hustle the target to safety. Bodyguards always prioritize their protectees over stopping the assassin. Attacking this way, in clear view, the assassin reduces their chances of completing the job.

When setting up this scene, keep the assassin’s goals in mind. It can be easy to try and structure a fight scene around what you want to happen, but always make sure the character motivations are backing that up. If you’re imagining a Byung Hun Lee type assassin from R.E.D. 2. (By the by, that’s Taekwondo.) Or John Wick, both are the typical Hollywood badass assassins. (The first John Wick film is notable for its use of modern shooting techniques like CAR. (Center Axis Relock), it’s worth looking at if you want to write gunfights.) Or like Lucy Lawless in the Burn Notice episode False Flag, you want to watch the full 16 minute clip or the full episode for even more good tradecraft to build off of. This episode centers around what you can expect when dealing with an assassin in the real world, the tactics and techniques they use, along with how to counter them. Another really good example of an assassin hewing closer to what you’d find in the real word is Vincent from Collateral. (Michael Mann’s films are also really good examples of professional shooting.)

I really recommend watching the False Flag episode and Collateral even if you’re planning to go with a Hollywood badass assassin.

Be honest with yourself about the type of narrative you want to write and the violence you’re looking at implementing in your novel. Honesty goes a long way toward narrowing your search. There are a lot of different approaches which are valid, what’s most important is finding the kind which interests you and then learning the applicable practical theories.

Last Note: If you’re interested in learning more about US Armed Services training, all their manuals (including special forces) are available online for free. It may take a few internet searches, but you’ll find the right PDFs.

-Michi

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Q&A: Remember, Fiction is a Lie

I read on here before that years of practice is very important and it is no surprise when an 80 year old master beats a 30 year old simply because of that. But how about if a character is able to live for hundreds or thousands of years. Wouldn’t it make such a character an absolute true master that no normal person can beat unaided by magic or tech? I’ve tried to look at fiction with such characters but it never really mentions this and these characters actually do get subdued unaided.

Well, consider this, when you’re reading about immortal characters, you’re reading fiction. Fiction is a lie. It may be a lie you want to believe, it may contain some semblance of veracity, but it is still a carefully crafted lie. It isn’t real and, because it is all in the author’s imagination, you can do whatever the hell you want.

In fiction, the author is not beholden to or have to consider any sort of realism outside of convincing their readership to believe the story they’re telling. More than that, fiction is notoriously inaccurate regarding violence in general. Often, these authors have never been in the room with actual individuals who are considered masters of their craft, experienced that remarkable chasm of awe, or felt the weight of being completely outclassed by presence alone. The end of the story is fiction lies to you. Again, the author crafts their own realism for their narrative and all that matters is whether or not their reader believes.

An immortal who was dueling with small-swords in France during the period when lost eyes and dual suicides were common isn’t going to be threatened by a seventeen year old with three weeks of modern sport fencing experience; especially if that immortal has kept up the practice.

This is a reasonable assumption if you extrapolate from the experiences of real world individuals. Fighting a master in the arena, utilizing their specialty, on an even playing field is asking to have your ass handed to you. In the real world, I’ve met men and women in their late sixties and seventies who are more limber than most teenagers. I once watched my martial arts master bend a solid steel rebar with the hollow of his throat. Crazy as that might sound, I kid you not. It’s a popular exercise shown at martial arts demos.

The irony is the upper limit of what human beings are capable of is, in fact, incredibly high, and most people are completely unaware because they have no exposure to it. Without experience, it’s difficult to fully comprehend the vast differences between individuals at various training stages and is, in part, where the trope “All Violence is Created Equal” comes from.

When an author has no experience with violence in any of its forms, they’re liable to treat all their combat characters as the same. We are all limited by our imaginations, just as our imaginations are limited by our knowledge and understanding of the world. A tiered system of power differences is easier to establish when you have experience. When you lack that experience, it can be more difficult to imagine the concrete ways your protagonist is disadvantaged by their immortal adversary. The author might not even realize how great an advantage experience is all by itself. Especially if they don’t understand predictive strategizing based on prior experience is more valuable than most of the techniques in a warrior’s arsenal. Fiction often treats strategy as separate or distinct character trait, rather than part of the package. This is part of why immortal characters inexplicably fall for obvious traps or ploys they should see coming a mile away, or acting in ways their narrative establishes is out of character for them. It’s all well and good to call your character a master fighter, but describing a master warrior and crafting a convincing character is an entirely different kettle of fish.

Violence is a vast, messy, constantly evolving business with a community that’s difficult to penetrate if you aren’t already a member. Martial combat skills and techniques are generally shrouded in mystery and hidden as a strategy to keep counters from being developed. The more information your opponent has about you, the easier it is for them to craft a solution to stop you. Combine this with media misinformation, urban legends, myths, and power fantasies, the novice faces a lot of difficulty figuring out what is and isn’t bacon. While the internet has given a lot of people more access than they had ten to twenty years ago, it can still be a difficult slog to sift through fact and fiction if you don’t already know what you’re looking for. Unfortunately, on the subject of martial combat, it’s a lot.

Fictional tropes often won’t help you much in unraveling the mystery, they’re far more liable to be even more confusing when sorting out how they relate to reality. The presentation of fictional violence in film or in literature is an art form all by itself. Understanding this art requires admitting that violence crafted for entertainment is its own animal, one which draws from the same source but is only tangentially related to the practical side. Add in the framing of youth versus the experienced elder, which is a central theme in many martial arts narratives and many narratives in general, and you have authors taking cues from stories which have no real relation to the one they’re telling.

An immortal whose body is frozen in their early twenties to early thirties is at their peak, they don’t suffer from the same issues as an the eighty year old human. The danger of the evil martial arts master isn’t their physical prowess, but their experience. Their aging bodies put them at a disadvantage against younger opponents, while their wisdom and skill make them deadly. An immortal doesn’t suffer from this weakness, they have the battlefield experience, the cunning, the skill, the wisdom of all their years, and the physical prowess of someone in peak condition. The scale is weighted even more heavily in favor of the immortal rather than the young protagonist, which is why mythological themes surrounding immortal beings favor ingenuity and cleverness over combat and brute force.

In the cases of the novels you’re reading, the author settled on artistic license to get the scenes and sequences they wanted for their narrative. The fight scenes might be there just to prove the protagonist knows how to fight or to showcase their skills. Usually, in the cases of immortals, that means they take a bath. They have to, if they’re a skilled warrior, in order to bring the protagonist up to par.

As a writer, you’re balancing audience enjoyment and your own desires against, in some cases, cohesive world building and realistic portrayals of violence. For all the smokescreen complaints about realism, people don’t want realistic portrayals. They just don’t want the character’s actions to break their suspension of disbelief. Learning this answer, many people might say, “then, if it doesn’t really matter, then what’s the point of learning about real violence and how it works?” The answer is so you can fake it. The general audience will accept it and claim realism achieved while only a slim segment realizes the truth.

In the end, reality gets in the way of the fantasy. If you look objectively at an immortal being who has survived through the centuries, crossed numerous battlefields, and survived as a soldier in warfare’s constant evolving environments, honing their skills against warriors who were also masters of their craft, you might think that a sixteen year old fighting them with a rapier and six months of sport fencing (consider the problem here, sport fencing doesn’t include the rapier and it won’t actually train you to duel in the old fashioned way either) sounds a little ridiculous. However, fiction is the great con and, like all cons, all about the slight of hand. If you can get your audience invested in the sixteen year old and their defeat of the immortal, you won’t get called out for being unrealistic.

As a writer, you control the perceptions of your audience. You give them the information you want them to retain. You direct the narrative. You can’t control what people take away from the experience of reading your story, but you can control what they read. As a result, you decide what matters.

The vast majority of folklore and myth across many cultures will tell you that fighting an immortal warrior in active conflict without any advantages of your own or just seeking to understand your enemy is a losing proposition. Modern fantasy often doesn’t agree — unless its specifically chasing or introducing folklore elements. The result is two very different narratives where the immortal is either just like everyone else or an immovable wall you need to strategize around. Go try smacking Koschei the Deathless around and see how far brute force gets you.

The answer you’re ultimately looking for is that the media you’re consuming was written by authors who picked a side. They weren’t interested in applying the experience factor, it didn’t fit with the story they were trying to tell, and that’s fine. There are plenty of other authors out there who have explored this experience side of immortals in depth. Highlander, Highlander: The Raven, Hellboy, Hunter: The Reckoning (most of White Wolf’s archives really), Dracula, and Faerie Tale by Raymond E. Feist immediately come to mind. Hell, even Lord of the Rings is filled with main characters who are technically geriatrics. (I’m looking at you Aragorn and your 87 years. And Legolas? 2900. Gimli is around 102.) There are many more out there, including a number of mythological monsters which require a specific set of circumstances to induce death. Most of the horror genre will drag you kicking and screaming into the dark where understanding the unknown is necessary for even a slim chance at victory.

You just need to expand your horizons.

-Michi

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Q&A: Be Careful of “Everyone”

Do soldiers or people who want to join the military usually look down on civilians in general as weak, or look down on disabled civilians who couldn’t join? I have encountered this from a few family members, unfortunately, and wanted to incorporate that experience into my novel, but I don’t know if this is common for former soldiers or if it’s more about age or some of my family members just being mean. What are your thoughts on this?

I think the best way to view the different branches of the Armed Services regarding their attitudes is that they all have their own cultures. The culture of each branch is based on their shared experiences, and those shared experiences do differentiate them from civilians who lack their background. Sometimes, this can result in an “us versus them mentality” among specific individuals but looking down on civilians as weak isn’t part of that culture. Regarding civilians as being unable to relate or understand their experiences is more on point. This is true to an extent, but it’s also true for every subculture from EMTs to police, to surgeons, and even Hollywood insiders.

I don’t know about you, but I certainly have difficulty relating to the story one of Starke’s friends told him about two Marines taking turns drinking from a bottle of liquor, zapping themselves with a light socket, and running headlong into a wall before switching places and repeating. I’m also just as sure after hearing that story a Marine would find nothing strange about it, and also cackle.

There are generational differences between the cultures. There’s a different culture among those who served in the past and are now civilians themselves versus those still serving. There’s a different sub-cultures among the officers and special forces than the general enlisted. Everyone agrees the Marines are weird, especially the Marines.

Now, the above doesn’t apply to the people who want to join the military. People who want to join the military and look down on people who don’t share their passion are fans. They’re not any different from any other fan out there. They aren’t part of the military culture or its rivalries yet. They want to be. They behave the way they imagine they should. They co-opt their beliefs about the military into their identity or use the identity to justify their own biases. Remember, though, it’s not just them. They’re not really any different or more special than the katana fans, the Krav Maga fans, Star Wars fans, or Naruto fans.

Personally, if you plan to write about anything to do with the military, I always recommend the more information on hand the better. Read web comics like Terminal Lance about daily life in the US Marine Corps, most of the US training manuals are actually available online which will give you insight into the thought processes of the people who wrote them. You may not enjoy or agree with the humor, but experiencing it can be instructive.

In my experience, I have several family members who served in the US Army. Neither my brother nor I were ever pressured by them about serving, or regarded as weak because we didn’t. My grandfather, who guarded General MacArthur’s family during WWII, celebrated when my father got out of the Vietnam draft due to a medical condition. Neither he nor my grandmother wanted my father to go to ‘Nam. My co-worker appreciates his time in the Navy, and he’d have liked to recommend his son join up. However, the Armed Services of today are very different from when he served. His son didn’t want the risk and he respects that.

The short answer is there are veterans who are assholes and veterans who aren’t. There are people who make their service too much a part of their identity, and feel they’re owed more than what they got. There are people who understand their service was their choice, who don’t resent others for choosing differently.

There’s never anything wrong with using your own life experiences for your novel. They’re yours, you should use them. All I’d caution you about is making the jump from “these people” otherwise known as your family members to a general perspective shared by everyone who ever served. Your family members aren’t alone in their attitudes, but theirs isn’t the only attitude that exists.

When following the everyone route, you run the risk of alienating readers who don’t share your experiences, even those who are willing to accept the perspective from a single character or in a story about a specific group of people. They stop short when you switch over into that perspective as ideological fact uniformly followed by everyone everywhere. Everyone everywhere is being intellectually lazy and that can impact the reader’s suspension of disbelief. While you don’t have to show those other perspectives, you want to practice leaving room in your narrative for a variety to exist.

-Michi

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Q&A: What The Value of a Good Education?

keleviel said to howtofightwrite: Since there’s a definite advantage, what DOES mean the difference between the training a Marine gets versus what a criminal gets? Experience and refinement, since the military has had so many years to figure out what’s effective versus the criminal who’s more or less starting from scratch? Focus, since the Marines are getting Actual Lessons versus the criminal’s just sort of learning on the job, as it were? Something else?

There’s a few basic problems in the way most media approaches violence which is what throws people who’ve never received any training off.

  1. There’s an assumption being good at violence comes from talent and not hard work.
  2. There’s an assumption that violence is not a skillset.
  3. There’s an assumption that if you’re good at one kind of violence, you’re good at all of them.

None of these are true.

Violence is like any other skillset. Education is king, and the quality of education you receive, as well as who you receive that education from, matters. Education opens up your possibilities, exposes you to new ideas, individuals, and experiences you might never have considered. It allows you to learn from others whose experiences are great than yours, and lets you learn from their success and their mistakes. In an organized system, you have a system backed by a few hundred years or more. This system is co-operative with multiple people working toward a singular goal. The value of this cannot be overstated, especially in the world of violence where everything changes with every new discovery.

In the US Armed Forces, training is updated every six months in response to newly developed counters, tactics, and strategies that upset the current status quo. We often view the military as stuck in its ways and, socially, that may be true. However, when it comes to developing new technologies, new fighting tactics, new strategies for a changing combat environment, they are on the cutting edge. They have access to the militaries of other countries, and are constantly adopting new techniques into their curriculum either from allies, guerrilla fighters, or from individuals while being stationed in foreign countries. A Marine’s hand to hand training pre-WWII and post-WWII are very different beasts. Every Marine today benefits from experiences gained by servicemen in previous eras. They learn from their successes and their failures.

Criminals don’t get training. Usually, they have to learn on the job and most of their additional education comes from other criminals while networking in prison. They can be very good at what they do, but the scope of that technique is limited. The chances they’ll have a general or even hand to hand skillset to back up their chosen specialization is low. If they have learned hand to hand, most of it comes from television, boxing lessons they had in high school, or what they’ve experienced from police or witnessed police use. They have fewer options, every weapon they learn how to use is on their own dime and based on what they can scrounge or barter from their local arms dealer. There is no coherent system, a low chance of mentoring, no real opportunities outside a limited pool, and even if you do get mentored, you’re at risk to be the fall guy.

The value and benefit of training cannot be overstated. If you ask someone who has had martial training what the value of training is, the first thought after staring at you in confusion is everything. You get everything from training. Training provides you with the building blocks, it provides you with your connections, it provides you with the scenarios where you can practice. Someone who is self-taught has no stances, they have no base and therefore no defense, they don’t know how to maximize the effectiveness of their punches, they probably can’t kick at all, they’re not particularly flexible, they may or may not have learned the value of cardio.

Self-taught criminals are very good at ambush tactics, but lose out in a protracted conflict. Why? They have nothing else and need nothing else. Ambush tactics are sufficient to deal with most people, including professionals (if you can catch them unawares). Criminals are better served by developing their social engineering, their ability to appear different than how they are, to blend in with society until the time comes to make their move.

Criminals and Marines have different approaches to violence because their goals are not the same. Criminals, especially assassins, have more in common with spies than they do soldiers. They don’t want to stand out from the crowd because when you appear suspicious, you’re a second away from getting caught.

I think there’s a perception among some writers that if you write a self-taught fighter, you get to skip having to learn about violence. You don’t have to dirty yourself by learning about government organizations or other groups whose perspectives and attitudes you may not like. You get some additional cache for beating the system. If you know nothing about violence, getting to skip the hassle of learning is definitely an attractive idea. Most of the authors whose novels I’ve read that had fighters who were “self-taught” took this route. The characters and the narrative suffered for it. All they really wanted was an excuse where they wouldn’t need to explain how their character knew or could do what they did.

Violence isn’t any different from acquiring any other type of skillset. Studying martial combat is just like studying basic mathematics, learning to speak a second language (or even your first language), or learning to read.

This question is a lot like asking, “what’s the value of high school?” or even just school in general. What do you learn in school that provides you with an advantage over people who’ve never been to school? What is the value of a good education?

-Michi

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Q&A: Choke Holds

How long does it take someone to lose consciousness from a choke hold? Google gives you answers that are anywhere from a few seconds to seven minutes.

That’s because there are many different types of choke holds with different positions, focuses, and purposes. They all require different amounts of time to take effect.

The one that takes seven seconds is: the blood choke.

The blood choke is strangulation, where you cut off the blood flow to your opponent’s brain by choking the carotid artery with pressure. The terminology I learned for this one was the triangle choke (confusing, because there’s a separate variant you can perform with your legs) which is decent because it describes the positioning of the arm, but its also called the rear naked choke and others depending on discipline. You form a triangle around your victim’s neck, with your elbow under their chin, and then squeeze. This choke is designed to cut off the blood circulation to their brain. Starving the brain of blood will put your opponent under much faster than starving it of oxygen. You also have a much smaller window on this choke between putting someone under and death.

Keep in mind, this isn’t like putting someone to sleep. When you knock someone out, they usually wake up a few seconds later.

The one that takes seven minutes is: the two hand throat grab.

The two hand throat grab is ironically the least effective choke and one of the easiest to escape from. This is because while the position is more stable than the single hand grab (which is very easy to break), the dual hands get in each other’s way. This choke hold goes directly after the windpipe, squeezing to cut off oxygen to the brain. Seven minutes is a very long time for professional martial combat. Consider that the standard street fight lasts less than thirty seconds. Martial Combat is all about economizing your time efficiently and this choke is not efficient. However, unlike more effective choke holds, it is easy to do. You’re also unlikely to kill your victim with it, unless you sit there squeezing their throat for about twenty minutes. The reason why I say this is because the hands get in the way of each other and don’t completely cut off the oxygen flow. It’s really hard to squeeze the windpipe shut with your fingers. Ironically, it’d be faster to smother them with a pillow.

These are the two (three) big ones most people think of when discussing choke holds. However, chokes aren’t the only way to strangle someone. There are quite a few techniques from the palm strike to the knife hand designed to perform similar functions like closing the carotid artery or collapsing the windpipe.

When considering knockouts, it’s very important to remember that a knockout isn’t the same as putting someone to sleep. Therefore, it isn’t “safe” and consequence free the way a lot of media portrays.

-Michi

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Q&A: Weapon Preferences and Specializations versus Signatures

Would it be feasible to have a character that’s bad at fighting with a sword and doing hand-to-hand combat, but is skilled with using a bow and arrows? I’m asking because I’m not sure if being a good archer has any crossover with fighting with your fists, for example, in terms of skills needed. Or would this character be good at all three of them if she just practiced? Is it realistic that she could just have an affinity towards using the bow?

The concept of the signature weapons rather than comprehensive fighting styles is a fictional creation, usually you see them in anime and in video games. To use a bow doesn’t mean you can’t fight with a sword or an axe or with their fists, and, due to the changing nature of the battlefield or the situations they might find themselves in, it would be inadvisable for them to ignore close quarters combat. Even if you’re character was simply a hunter, they’d have a wide ranging skillset with various weapons, including the creation and setting of traps to knives and, possibly, even spears depending on the type of game they hunted. You don’t go after bears and boars with a bow.

One thing to understand about the medieval bow if you plan to have a character use one is that the weapon itself requires a lot of time to set up. A bow is not like a gun, you don’t just pull it out and start shooting. You’ve got to keep it oiled and carefully wrapped so its not exposed to the elements, you carry the bowstring separately so if you’re traveling and didn’t plan to use your bow then it must be restrung. You will also need to either go get your arrows after use, find a fletcher, or make them yourself if you’re not part of a military unit which will provide them to you (and even then, you still want to retrieve them.) The general use for the bow in your standard military was as artillery. They were the cannons before there were cannons. Archers also carried a sidearm in either a sword or axe in cases where the enemy broke through the front lines. At those times, they’d be required to fight in close quarters.

As a writer its important to learn the distinction between “preferred” and “can’t”. This character may prefer to fight with a bow, as a sharpshooter and at range, but combat specialists develop a wide array of skills so they can change out as needed. This includes fighting in hand to hand, fighting with swords (these two crossover), axes, spears, and other weapons.

If you choose to go with a character who only uses a bow and nothing else, then you have a character limited by their positioning who can’t fight in crowded rooms without finding higher ground (and can’t fight past enemies to get to higher ground), who can’t survive an ambush, who has to run and keep running until they put enough distance between themselves and their enemies, who will have difficulty fighting indoors or in places with poor visibility, who may face difficulty fighting at night, who is limited to a specific set of circumstances and does poorly in every single other one. This is a character without any self-defense skills, who is reliant on others to keep them safe when things don’t go according to plan or when they run out of arrows. They also lack the means to create advantageous circumstances for themselves while under threat, which limits their long term survivability.

Every character is going to have preferences for weapons they like to use, and things they don’t like to do. It’s like being told to eat your veggies when you just want to eat fruit, or that you have to do push ups when all you want to do is parkour. Some people prefer fists to kicks, some people prefer standing grappling or joint locks to groundfighting, but you have to learn them all in order to prepare yourself for a variety of situations. If you play shooters, you’ll notice the soldier characters carry a variety of different weapons from assault rifles to SMGs to handguns. That’s not counting the countless other weapons you can choose based on the situation you’re about to walk into. This is so they’ll always have a usable weapon when the situation, scenario, or battlefield changes. You don’t want to lose crucial seconds using a weapon poorly suited for the environment you’re in when a fraction of a second can cost you your life.

Remember, in the combined legends of Robin Hood, his standard kit includes not just a bow but also a sword. We have the legends of his fight on the log with Little John with staves. He might not be better than Little John at using a staff, but he’s trained to fight with one.

Martial combat and weapons work are skills. You learn to use them. Usually, when we’re discussing talent, we’re discussing people who have better than average coordination and great physical mimicry. There’s almost no gap between seeing a technique and applying it. That’s the talent. Your character’s affinity may not just be natural, but learned if she had parents who worked with bows and she grew up around archers. The bow would always feel more natural because she started learning to use one when she was five instead of fifteen.

It’s also important to remember that preference doesn’t always relate to talent. Your character might find learning to use a bow comes more easily to her or she has an “affinity” for it, but likes swords better. At the end of the day, the weapon you like better is the one your better at using because you invest more time into it. A character who uses a bow, might take their hand to hand training and get decent at using their legs for self-defense so they can defend their weapon as well as themselves.

Many writers use talent as an excuse to avoid explanation. Regardless of whatever you plan to write, you should learn as much about the subject as you can. There’s also this idea that you can only train in one thing and that there’s no crossover or blending. Learning to fight hand to hand or with a sword and learning to shoot a bow is no different than learning to shoot and learning to ride a horse. They are two separate skillsets which can be combined, so you can shoot a bow while riding a horse. Otherwise known as mounted combat.

At the end of the day, being a martial combatant is about having a diverse skillset encompassing a very large swath of possibilities in order to prepare for a variety of situations and eventualities. Fighting inside a castle is very different from fighting inside your local village full of houses with thatch roofs. Fighting in a forest is different from fighting on a plain. Fighting an opponent with a spear or staff is fighting a swordsman, or someone with a dagger. Fighting an opponent with a sword and shield is different from fighting someone with a single sword.

Combat is a form of problem solving. There’s never just one way to solve a problem, and you’ll never solve different problems the same way every time. If you choose to do so, your enemy will constantly be developing new ways to stop you and your solution will eventually be countered by new techniques and new technologies. The goalposts are constantly moving, even for characters who are the literal best at what they do.

Don’t hem your characters in, even if they prefer one weapon over others. Let them specialize, but don’t create a one trick pony. This gives you more options to when it comes to constructing scenarios and fight scenes for your characters. You’ll be able to plot a course of action reflective of both your narrative and your characters.

-Michi

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